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Winter is tough on Juneau's homeless

Homeless Connect event planned Jan. 28

Posted: December 30, 2012 - 12:10am
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Winter is cold in Juneau. More so if you live in a tent. And that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with the holiday? Not so much if you have no family and no home.

Such is the situation for many of Juneau’s homeless population.

As of the most recent Point In Time count, done on Jan. 24, there are 562 Juneau residents who are homeless. This number includes 200 students in Juneau’s school district.

Vicki Shenefield has lived in Juneau for most of the last 10 years. She has been homeless the entire time.

“It’s hard,” Shenefield said. “It is very hard on people.”

The 30-year-old has been on the streets in Alaska and in her home state of Indiana on and off for the last two decades. She said she has suffered abuse by a family member. She is epileptic and has a loyal service dog named Hercules. Shenefield lives on $239 a month in food stamps.

“How do you live off of $239 a month?” Shenefield asked. And to confound the problem of food, Shenefield must buy more expensive pre-made food as she does not have access to even a camp fire.

Until Friday morning at 5 a.m. when she and her companions were evicted from their site near downtown, Shenefield lived, rain or shine, snow and wind, in a hand-made tent-like shelter.

“We built a structure around us,” Shenefield said “But it didn’t work very well.”

Shenefield said they were not allowed to start a fire. How does she beat the cold?

“Blankets, layers and body heat,” Shenefield said.

Now that they’ve left their camp site Shenefield said they are still unsure what they’ll do next. During the interview Shenefield and Hercules were staying warm at the Glory Hole.

Shenefield said being homeless during the holidays is difficult even though her home life growing up was abusive. She said just finding a comfortable place to spend some quite time is nearly impossible. However, she does find solace in the downtown Library.

“I like to study,” Shenefield said. Her specialty is volcanology.

People might be surprised that not all homeless people drink or do drugs, Shenefield said.

“Don’t judge the homeless people,” Shenefield said. “You could be wrong.” She said the reaction from some people when they realize she is homeless is difficult to deal with.

The causes of homelessness are many and complex. Mental health, a criminal record, substance abuse, past physical abuse and trauma and good old fashioned momentary bad luck and life choices are just some of the factors that can push a person to the street — mental health issues taking a large percentage of the blame. However, Juneau’s homeless population is homeless not only for financial, or mental health reasons. The same housing crisis that affects middle-income families looking for reasonable rent or mortgages and businesses trying to bring talent to town and upwardly mobile residents who want to upgrade their homes, this same housing crisis also affects those in search of almost any warm place to call home.

Juneau’s housing shortage results in at worst a longer wait time and higher-than-average mortgage for the more fortunate homebuyers. For the less fortunate it manifests as a life on the streets or in shelters.

Many people with vouchers go weeks or months looking for a place,” said Kiel Renick outreach coordinator with the Glory Hole “Some look so long they have to turn their voucher back in.”

Renick’s position at the Glory Hole allows him to work with homeless to find housing. However the successes are hard to come by.

“It is a lot more filling out applications than moving people in,” Renick laments.

Even with state and federal assistance, Juneau’s homeless are hard pressed to find housing in the current market.

“You can’t find a place to rent with a $1,200 disability check. It doesn’t go to the extent of finding people housing, it goes to the extent of giving them a check.”

Even though there are several places in town that house homeless in different situations and for different reasons, it doesn’t mean the homeless can find room, Renick said. Seekers of many of these services, from housing vouchers to youth and senior housing services, face long waiting lists.

“To have no option and to believe that you will have no option in the future,” Renick said. “That is a real and often times painful-to-being-traumatic mental experience.”

The Glory Hole provided 52,357 meals in 2011 along with nearly 10,000 uses of its dormitory beds.

Juneau has many services set up to lend a hand to its homeless population. That population runs from kids in school to septuagenarians and older.

Sergeant Chris Gifford of the Juneau Police Department spoke a little about the department’s work with homeless downtown.

Gifford said JPD uses grant money to hire two police officers for a specific downtown beat. Lt. Dave Campbell supervises Officers Nicholas Garza and Thomas Penrose as they serve the downtown area.

“They are doing a full-time service that all of our officers would like to do more,” Gifford said. And that is “try to be a resource to people who need us in the downtown area: homeless, business owners and residents.”

However, this sets up competing interests, Gifford said. The goal is to enforce everyone’s rights, he said.

“It takes a special type of person to do that job,” Gifford said.

The Juneau Homeless Coalition plans to hold its annual Project Homeless Connect on Jan. 28, 2013 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Centennial Hall.

Attendees can receive on-the-spot goods and services that include health care, haircuts, housing assistance, job placement, food, foot massage and others. Homeless Connect assisted hundreds of people during the last two one-day events.

Other Juneau organizations working on local homelessness include the Juneau Economic Development Council, St. Vincent de Paul, Juneau Youth Services, Aiding Women In Abuse and Rape Emergencies Inc., Alaska Housing Development Corporation, Gastineau Human Services, United Way of Southeast Alaska, Juneau Police Department, Southeast Alaska Independent Living among many others.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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